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Hong Kong rescue services

10 hours in the dark on ‘suicide cliff’ in tropical storm with only raincoats for shelter: how two lucky Hong Kong hikers were rescued

Details emerge of difficult operation to evacuate pair after they became stranded on Kowloon Peak amid Tropical Storm Pakhar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 9:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 8:07pm

Four firefighters used their raincoats as a makeshift tent and stayed 10 hours overnight on a hillside branded “suicide cliff” at the weekend to keep two stranded hikers alive during a perilous 24-hour rescue mission as Tropical Storm Pakhar swept through Hong Kong.

More details emerged on Monday of the difficult operation to evacuate the duo after they became stranded on Kowloon Peak amid the storm.

A source involved in the exercise told the Post that four firefighters located the man, aged 31, and woman, 47, at around 11pm on Saturday on a steep slope 200 metres up Kowloon Peak, after receiving a report at 7.43pm about the pair being stuck.

The mountain is the highest peak on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula and is classed by hikers as an advanced-level trail.

Some 160 personnel were involved in the search for the duo, and rescuers at the scene faced huge difficulties evacuating the woman after she sustained an injury and could not walk. She had to be stretchered to safety at the top of the cliff amid gale force winds.

The massive operation sparked criticism over the potential cost to taxpayers of rescuing hikers who decide to go out in adverse conditions.

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The Post calculated that dispatching 160 rescue staff for 10 hours would entail about HK$344,000 in staffing costs alone, based on the hourly charge of HK$215 for the lowest ranked fire services officer. However, many of those staff had been providing support remotely in this operation, the source said.

“The rain was so heavy that it was like a waterfall. The four firemen made a ‘tent’ by using their raincoats to shelter the pair from the rain. The weather was so bad that even the Government Flying Service could not send a helicopter,” the source added.

“But the four firemen decided to stay with the hikers until firefighters arrived with reinforcements when the weather improved.”

The four carried out first aid on the injured woman, who had hurt her forehead and legs, and covered her with a blanket to keep her warm, then tied her to rescue ropes to prevent her from falling down the slope, the source said.

The Hong Kong Observatory issued its No 3 storm warning at 8.40pm on Saturday and upgraded it to No 8 at 5.10am the next morning, indicating winds with sustained speeds of 63km/h to 117km/h were expected to hit the city.

“Firemen also gave the pair biscuits and water. They kept talking to the duo to keep them awake and to make them feel hopeful,” the source said.

It was understood one of the firefighters was from Wong Tai Sin Fire Station, while the other three, whose ranks ranged from junior to principal, were part of the mountain search and rescue unit at Sai Kung Fire Station.

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Backup firefighters arrived at around 9am on Sunday as the weather improved.

The man was eventually able to walk all the way down the slope, but rescuers from a high angle rescue team had to carry the woman with the aid of a stretcher tied to cable and ropes. They took her to a television transposer station 300 metres away at the top of the mountain, and then to an ambulance 2.5km away.

Top brass in the fire services were said to be full of praise for the operation.

The couple, from mainland China and surnamed Li and Chen, were sent to hospital on Sunday evening and discharged on Monday at noon. The male hiker told reporters after his rescue that they had been trying to find an MTR station but chose the wrong route.

The pair came in for criticism from internet users on Monday, with many asking why they had been on the hillside when storm warnings had been issued, and complaining the rescue operation had cost valuable public resources.

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“The selfish acts of the hikers jeopardised the safety of fire services personnel. They also deprived resources from people in real need,” a Facebook user wrote.

“How come people still hike every time a storm hits the city?” another wrote. “Stop this stupid act, please!”

Firefighters’ unions said that resources and the efforts of their members were never wasted when it involved saving lives.

Yang Kin-sang, chairman of the Fire Services Officers Association, said the rescue had been especially warranted because the woman was injured.

“Even if one makes a foolish decision putting his or her life in danger, it is still worth everything for us to save a life,” Yang said. “In this case, the pair faced considerable danger and therefore called on us for help.”

Hikers should always be well-equipped and should not go out in extreme weather, Yang added.